NEW YORK (AP) -- They were trudging up the stairs of the north tower, weighed down with gear and pausing every four floors to catch their breath. They had no idea the south tower had been hit.
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''It was single file, civilians going down and firemen going up,'' firefighter Marcel Claes recalled. ''The civilians were orderly and blessing us and helping the injured down.''
At the 35th story, on his knees and talking with other firefighters about how best to get equipment up the tower, Claes and his brethren felt a rumble _ like an earthquake, or a train going through your living room, he said.
It was then, as the south tower of the World Trade Center was collapsing in a giant cloud of debris, that he heard the voice of a chief from another battalion: ''Drop everything and get out.''
The story was just one that emerged Friday as the Fire Department released 12,000 pages of oral histories recorded by firefighters who responded to the trade center attack and lost 343 of their brethren _ the most finely sketched portrait yet of the horror and chaos of Sept. 11, 2001.
There were stories of firefighters' dramatic attempts to rescue civilians, of their decisions to evacuate as ordered or their choices to stay in the towers, of their sheer terror when the buildings fell.
Trapped in the mall below the trade center after the collapse of the south tower, firefighter James Murphy and a group of firefighters started hunting for the exits. Frightened civilians began grabbing onto them, he said.